Keeping it in the Family

FOR the collector or connoisseur, accuracy in a watch really is most important,” says Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe, when asked about his company’s core values. “At this level and these prices, if you’re going to buy a watch it has to be absolutely accurate.”

Obvious, right? Maybe on the face of it – but the fact is, centuries after the invention of the first wristwatch, timekeeping accuracy remains the pre-eminent challenge for manufacturers. Meddlesome factors like temperature, magnetic fields, the pernicious effects of lubrication, even air resistance can cause a fine mechanical timepiece to lose or gain several seconds a day; the elimination of such inefficiencies is one thing that separates the leaders from the mere pretenders.

That Patek Philippe is one of the leaders is beyond dispute – it’s seen by many as the most exalted watch brand of all.

It has the historic prestige – its watches have been prized in the highest echelons of society since Antoine Patek founded the company in 1839, and fetch phenomenal auction prices (new ones range from around £10,000 to several hundreds of thousands); it has the beautiful designs – just drink in the elegant proportions and simple clarity of its Reference 5270 watch [right], launched this year at Baselworld, to see the understated classicism for which Patek is famed; and it has the technical superiority – it’s forging new paths in accuracy and efficiency using cutting-edge silicon technology.

“Perfection is not something I’m able to reach; but people expect from Patek that we are doing the best we can to achieve the ideal mix of accuracy and beauty,” says Stern, and its hard to disagree.

There’s one more crucial factor, however, that sets Patek apart – family. Where most of the industry’s old family-run businesses have now been turned over to shareholders or swallowed up by luxury conglomerates, Patek Philippe is among the last, and is certainly the most prominent, to maintain family-owned independence. In 2009 Stern took the reigns from his father Philippe (Stern senior remains honorary president), and is the fourth successive Stern to run Patek since his great-grandfather bought the company in 1932. His wife Sandrine even runs Patek’s creative department.

All of which could seem like a stubborn, risky refusal to bend with the times, but at Patek it has been the opposite.

While the faddy, shareholder-pleasing, marketing-led practices of many other brands left them vulnerable in the recession, at Patek, which never goes near a celeb endorsement and where even product names are merely ultra-discrete reference numbers, growth was maintained through the down period. That’s because, Stern says, at Patek Philippe the watches come first.

“When I started with the company years ago, I started with the products,” he explains. “My father said to me: ‘of course you need to understand the whole financial side, but you can hire professionals for that. Now, to hire someone who understands the DNA of Patek, there is no school for this, you won’t find someone else.’

“This is the know-how we have, and that we have to give to each generation of the Stern family,” he continues. “It’s transmission by talking and listening and learning. What people expect from Patek is a continual evolution, one that is useful rather than about gimmicks.”

Which brings us back to accuracy, and the subject of silicon. Since 2005 the company has been pioneering the use of low-density silicon – more efficient and precise in its movements than lubricated metal – in escapement components. It has created a tiny assemblage of silicon parts, newly completed and given the zingy name Oscillomax, which will bear a radical influence on future watch designs.

The watch industry falls over itself to adopt exciting new materials and compounds that it can market to death – whether they serve much purpose may be beside the point if they seem futuristic enough. Silicon – modern, synthetic, heavily associated with technological advances, but mysterious nevertheless – is increasingly the subject of such excitement, and Stern foresees it inspiring the kind of activity that he abjures.

“Soon a brand will bring out a 100 per cent silicon movement. Why? It doesn’t help at all,” he sighs. “It really helps the escapement, but after that it’s a gimmick – this is what you have to watch out for.”

For Stern, doing just that is a matter of personal pride and stewardship of a family legacy as much as corporate necessity – the one begets the other, and vice versa. He jokes that where his clients receive a Patek watch from their fathers (as per the company’s famous father/son ads) he received a watch and a factory as well. And like his clients, he’s merely looking after it for the generation that comes after.

“You are a kind of goalkeeper for a game but it’s only one game,” he says. “Patek Philippe was here before I was born, and will be here long after I’m gone. The next game – you have to train the next generation for that.”

1839 Antoine Patek and Francois Czapek found Patek, Czapek & Co in Geneva

1844 Antoine Patek and Jean Adrien Philippe start working together

1868 Patek Philippe creates the first Swiss wristwatch, made for a Hungarian countess.

1922 Patek Philippe makes the first split-seconds chronograph wristwatch

1932 Brothers Jean and Charles Stern purchase the company; the Calatrava collection is launched.

1959 Patek Phippen patents its Time Zone Watch movement

1989 To celebrate 150 anniversary, Patek Philippe creates the most complicated portable timepiece ever.

2005 Patek Philippe Advanced Research launches a watch with a silicon escape wheel.